Joys of Research | Newberry

Joys of Research

We had a Winter Weather Day on Wednesday and a Reasonably Open Half Day at the Newberry yesterday. I did not see who came by Thursday with all those bags of books, but I cannot say everything I might about people who come out on book errands on such hideous days. After all, I came in. so why shouldn’t you?

I spent part of my day examining the biographies and histories which came to me in the estate of that historian of Jacksonian America, mentioned on Wednesday. The autobiography of Martin Van Buren turned out to be nothing I’ll have to stand a guard over come July, nor yet the autobiography of Thurlow Weed or the biography of Silas Wright. But there was a book which taught me several things, one of which I was suspecting in any case.

Unless you are involved with American history of the era covering, oh, 1776 through 1850, I don’t suppose the name James A. Hamilton means much to you. If I noted that the A stood for Alexander, would it help? Think for a second. I see a lot of shrugging in the classroom. I don’t blame you.

James A. Hamilton was Secretary of State between Henry Clay and Martin Van Buren, a man who kept trying to become President and a man who did. Does that help? He wrote his autobiography to combat a lot of stories which had been spread, he said, by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Martin Van Buren. What could Thomas Jefferson have been saying about someone who was a teenager when Jefferson was President? Well, see James Alexander Hamilton was a politician, an officeholder, a veteran of the War of 1812 AND the third son of Alexander Hamilton. He was in the room when his father died, following the duel with Aaron Burr. He was stony broke when he married the granddaughter of a Supreme Court Justice, and he looked back with fondness on the poverty-stricken days of his early marriage. He wasn’t exactly born in a log cabin, see, but he was not the first nor the last politician to expound on the character-building nature of destitution.

Anyway, his autobiography is rather rare (though of course you can buy print on demand copies of it) and it was in looking up the value that I learned that lesson that I had always secretly suspected. An outfit requesting more than six hundred bucks for a copy of the book points out its importance in studying our heroes, since it is “the scarce autobiography of the third son of President Alexander Hamilton”. I am NOT an expert in eighteenth century American history, so it may be that Hamilton was President of SOMETHING (his school debate club?) but he was NOT President of the United States, even though he’s on the ten dollar bill. Still, I am prepared to overlook tiny details which don’t really reflect on the price of the book. I can even ignore the fact that they made his middle name Albert.

You MUST check ALL the prices of the book you’re looking up: not just the highest ones. And here was a completely different bookseller, also asking more than six hundred for the book, pointing out that it is, after all, “the scarce autobiography of the third son of President Alexander Hamilton”. They give the author’s name as James Albert Hamilton.

Now, back in the day, I had teachers who would warn us not to write our book reports by just copying down the information on the endflap., “even if you change a few of the words”. SOMEBODY, it seems, didn’t even bother to change a few of the words. I don’t know which bookseller it was: I will allow the other one a possible out by noting that the mistake COULD have been put in deliberately, so as to catch the thief. (Who’s Who in America is known for this sort of boobytrap; some of my colleagues have suggested that explains how I got listed in it.)

I don’t suppose James Alexander Hamilton suspected that he would be teaching lessons about online bookselling a century and a half (exactly) after his autobiography was published. But I thank him for it, and if anyone ever asks my help in writing a musical about him, I’ll throw that bit in.

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